A strategic military point located about 3,700 kilometers west of Honolulu, and the site of a World War II battle deemed “The Alamo of the Pacific”, the unincorporated U.S. territory is now home to 100 non-permanent residents – some military, some civilian contractor – whose sole job is to maintain the island’s single paved runway and military installations, should any military or commercial aircraft need to make an emergency landing or refuel. While the Micronesian atoll acts first and foremost as a jumping off point for military personnel, 100 workers call this island home – however long or short their stay might be.
Top Ten Facts about Living Conditions on Wake Island
- Population: Wake Island has no native population, meaning that the 100 personnel stationed on the atoll are about it, aside from the natural wildlife. According to a 2018 CBS story, only four of these residents are U.S. military, while the rest (who are mainly of Thai descent) simply live there for varying lengths of time, maintaining the infrastructure. While these residents are considered non-permanent, some have been there for decades. In particular, one contractor has been working on Wake since 1991.
- Education: Because the inhabitants of Wake Island are non-permanent, many of their families are overseas, meaning there is little need (or space given the amount of government property on the island) to establish a formal education system on Wake Island. That said, if the need arises, resources may be allocated to establish a school.
- Economy: The economy of Wake Island is based solely on external factors. Due to the land’s total area of seven square kilometers, there is not enough space to establish substantial agriculture or production. That said, large scale infrastructure is not necessarily needed – currently, fresh food, water and supplies are flown in every two weeks in order to guarantee the residents have adequate supplies.
- Natural vegetation and rainfall: Wake Island has no agricultural land and no arable land. Much of the natural vegetation on the island consists of what has been described as “gray, open scrub forest” by a 1959 report by the National Academy of Sciences. Furthermore, Wake Island is generally very dry, receiving on average a little less than three inches of rainfall each month (aside from typhoons), creating the need for rainwater procurement systems and desalinization plants for drinking water.
- Weather conditions: While Wake Island might seem like a tropical paradise, it is not immune to tropical storms and typhoons. In 2006, the island was evacuated on account of category five tropical storm Ioke, though the island and its facilities received little damage or disruption from the event. That said, these storms are few and far between, and in general, do not greatly influence the living conditions on Wake Island.
- Animal life: The non-permanent residents are not alone on Wake Island. The atoll itself is a National Wildlife Refuge and is host to several species of migratory birds. In the past, Wake Island has also been home to rats and feral cats. Initially brought to Wake to help mitigate a rat problem in the 1960s, the introduction of feral cats as predators greatly interfered with the bird population, with some species changing breeding and nesting habits. Efforts have been made to reduce the number of feral cats on the island, but these measures have resulted in an increase in the rat population. That said, after Typhoon Ioke, a 2008 study conducted by the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian detected only two remaining feral cats, and no kittens, with varied data on the rat population.
- United States Presence: Putting it simply, Wake Island is first and foremost a U.S. government installation. Located at a strategic point in the Pacific, commercial flights and tourists are strictly forbidden without proper clearance. That said, should a plane or ship need to make an emergency landing, they are often cleared to do so. In addition to the military base and the lone paved runway, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a research facility on the island in order to assist in monitoring ocean currents and weather patterns.
- Aid for Wake Island: Aid provided to Wake Island by the United States is based solely on need. Because of its military designation, Wake Island thrives on the U.S. military’s “supply drops” every two weeks, which provide adequate living conditions for the island’s inhabitants. Though should something arise (typhoon, insufficient resources, etc.), the United States will react accordingly, as evidenced by Typhoon Ioke.
- Transnational issues: While the United States initially annexed Wake Island in 1898 and made the island a formal military base in the 1930s, ownership over the atoll is a gray area at best. While Wake Island is often considered an unincorporated United States territory under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Marshall Islands laid an official claim to Wake Island in 2016, stating the atoll lay within country’s official geographic borders – and that the Marshallese often ventured there in search of a specific flower (the Kio Flower) before the arrival of European explorers.
- Memories of War: On December 8, 1941, moments after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese forces set their sights on Wake Island and launched a surprise attack. While the U.S. forces were able to defend the island against the initial wave of attackers, the atoll eventually fell and was turned into a Prisoner of War camp until the end of the war. On one May evening in 1943, one prisoner escaped the camp and etched the following on a stone across the atoll: “98 US PW 5-10-43”, demarcating the remaining 98 U.S. soldiers still interred in the camp, and the day they were to be executed. Two years later, the United States retook Wake Island. This rock, now referred to as 98 Rock, is one of many remnants from World War II, and the Battle of Wake Island.
A tropical paradise to anyone researching, the government installation feels otherworldly, according to the 2018 CBS story – an island that somehow belongs to both the United States and the Marshall Islands, but at the same time, neither. It is its own island community filled with non-permanent workers, who make do with what they have.
– Colin Petersdorf
Photo: CIA Library Website